BRUNEAU, Idaho — Rancher Chris Black is using beaver dam analogs to make his property wetter and greener.
The structures, with their willow walls and intermittently spaced wooden poles, mimic beaver dams by holding back or slowing water. They’re effective and fairly cheap — important in that they can blow out occasionally, just like the real thing.
“Since ’17 when they put them in, that whole stretch now has become continuously watered,” Black said. “The meadows are starting to sponge that water up, and become greener and more alive.”
Black, with help from state and federal agencies as well as volunteers, has been using the analogs on Deep Creek tributary Hurry Up Creek, which dries up in summer heat. The structures help to keep water in the creek longer and raise the water table. About a dozen of the 30-plus analogs planned have been installed.
“Most species are pretty dependent on wet meadows and things, as are my cows,” he said. “If you can manage those and create habitat, you are going to have more wildlife and more benefits.”
“This is low-tech, low-cost restoration,” said USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Sagebrush Restoration Specialist Derek Mynear. “This is not a new concept, but it is certainly taking off here in the West.”
Crews can repair or replace the analogs, designed to last up to five years, he said, or even incorporate beefier post-assisted log structures to control, redirect or otherwise stir up current at higher flows.
Black, whose family has 1800s irrigation and stock-water rights, in the early 2000s used a backhoe to rebuild several beaver dams on a separate site over which Long Tom Creek runs. The water pooled “and allowed meadows to come back in and be sub-irrigated,” he said. “Water stayed in the stream longer and the stream dried up later.”
The Long Tom site’s original beavers were decimated by unauthorized over-trapping about 50 years ago. A subsequently transplanted population didn’t stay, but the rebuilt dams ultimately drew new beavers from higher in the drainage, he said. They stayed until the hard winter of 2016-17. “There was no deep water to go to, but they may be moving back in.”
In contrast, the site where the analogs are used “has more potential, but less water resources and more difficulties in doing it,” Black said. “That is why it was chosen as an experimental site.”
An Idaho Rangeland Resources Commission Life on the Range report said Black’s site is a natural fit because it adds value to other conservation projects in the area and has a healthy population of sage grouse.
Another analog project, on Hawley Creek near Leadore, is more complex in that it is working toward season-long flows supporting anadromous and resident fish, and has a major irrigation component involving nearby ranchers with longtime water rights, IRRC said.